Getting Started in Science Writing

Science writing is one of the most exciting niches in journalism–science writers get to travel, meet intelligent and interesting people and report on new developments from the dramatic and groundbreaking to the quirky and peculiar. Science writers may specialize in one of the traditional natural and physical sciences–biology, geology, physics, and chemistry–or write about anthropology, archeology, medicine and health, engineering, space and planetary science, mathematics or the environment.

Breaking into the science writing field can be daunting due to the scarcity of mid- to low-range markets, but the field is rewarding. You don’t have to have a science background to be a successful science writer. John McPhee, famous for his lyrical geology articles in The New Yorker (some of which are collected in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Annals of the Former World), studied English, not geology. If you do have a science background, that can help you, but overcoming your training to use technical language may be an obstacle.

Education

While almost every writers’ organization seems to offer travel writing courses, science writing courses are rare. Health and medical writing courses are most commonly taught, but colleges and universities occasionally offer more general science or environmental writing courses. Be sure to look carefully at the instructor’s publications before deciding whether to take the course. Seminars on science, environmental and medical writing are sometimes offered at regional or national conferences. These courses and seminars can be a great introduction to the field or help you polish your skills.

Some science writers, particularly those aiming at a staff position, may find a graduate degree is the way to go. Graduate degrees are expensive, however, so consider your options carefully. Some respected science and medical writing graduate programs are offered at MIT, Columbia, University of California–Santa Cruz and Boston University.

Professional Organizations

Several professional organizations provide networking opportunities and resources for science writers. Many offer discounted student membership, and some resources are available to nonmembers.

  • National Association of Science Writers
  • American Medical Writers Association
  • Society of Environmental Journalism

Joining local and regional organizations can also be a great way to network.

Read All About It

In addition to the basic freelance writing books, these books for science writers provide more specific information about everything from finding stories and markets to tips for conveying complex technical information clearly.

Ideas Into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing, by Elise Hancock (2003)

This slim book leans more towards craft than marketing, and provides a solid and enjoyable introduction to how to write about science.

A Field Guide for Science Writers (1st ed.), eds. Deborah Blum and Mary Knudson (out of print)
A Field Guide for Science Writers (2nd ed.), eds. Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig
These two editions have very different content, and both are a mine of information for the aspiring science writer. They cover different markets and types of writing in detail, with contributions from leading science writers.

Finding Markets

Everyone knows about the big general science magazines like Discover and National Geographic, which are prestigious and pay well, but are also hard to break into. Mid-range specialized magazines like Archaeology and Astronomy may be better targets for some, but they don’t have equivalents in all science disciplines.

Fortunately, many magazines accept science stories with the right angle. A forestry magazine might be interested in an article on how a study on bird ecology impacts forest management. Alumni magazines frequently publish articles about science by professors or alumni of the institution. Ecotravel is a booming trend frequently covered by travel magazines.

Don’t discount other ways to make ends meet–writing about science for nonprofit organizations, private labs, and businesses is the bread and butter of many science writers, if less glamorous than being a staff writer for Discover.

Break In!

As with any other writing niche, science writers can break in with good, timely writing and perseverance. So research those markets, start sending queries and don’t give up!

Science Education In India

Currently there exist a number of life science societies in India. The names being diverse, purpose indeed remains the same. These societies are aiming to bring people on a universal platform and popularize science. Certain initiative needs to be incorporated in order to popularize science, which is necessary for its further betterment in the society.

Life Science Society Initiative (LSSI)

The increased effort by the prevalent societies needs more focused perspective. Current outlook is more towards increasing the awareness of science within the community, also there is interdisciplinary work carried out by some of these societies. The efforts should be directed not just to gather these intellectuals and students on a common platform but also to inculcate the habit amongst them to interact in near future. Directives should thus be towards creation of a scientist, teacher, entrepreneur and most significantly an intellectual.

Scientist-Teacher Interaction (STI)

There should be an increased researcher-educator partnership between both, the educators of science and scientists to teach science as it is practiced. There is a communication gap, which is commonly observed between both the scientist and a teacher. The use and conception of improved facilities, update knowledge and productive interactions between the scientist and teacher should be practiced. Inclusion of teaching, research and human research development must also be a part of the process. Programs should be initiated to enhance interactions amongst both the groups.

Teacher-Student Interaction (TSI)

This interaction is indeed strong and influenced. There is day-to-day interaction and discussion within members of this group. The popularization of science is a positive feature that can be initiated by this group. Apart from academics the vision needs to be set towards popularizing science in near future. In many institutes and colleges the incorporation of research projects as part of the curriculum has generated zeal amongst the young generation towards research and science.

Scientist-Student Interaction (SSI)

In most of the cases the reach of students towards science and or scientist is limited. There is lack of knowledge amongst students about research hence dialogue needs to be established within the scientist-student community. In recent years the communication between this communities is possible by the means of interactive sessions and programme such as conferences, symposia, guest lectures or open forums.

But what is the life of this talk? Does the discussion ends within four walls of the conference room? What are the numbers benefited under these programme? What about the grassroots levels initiatives?

One of the initiatives in this respect is launch of science magazines. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of science-based magazines. Science magazines was previously more focused towards particular age group readers, it now attracts more diversified readers. To some extent the scientific magazines have proved to reduce the barriers. But how many of them afford to purchase or read these magazines?

Science Awareness Strategy (SAS)

Where do we place science, scientist or science educator? Do they always face a setback in terms of pecuniary? Are the science educators looking towards a change? What do students of science think of the long-term prospects of their career in science?

Honestly speaking science is still undoubtedly not so career dream for most of them. Therefore, science should be made more attractive and focused. The perspective of researchers towards the students must be more open. The life science societies and organizations are driven by their own disciplines. They are more focused towards the organizational aspects and need to co-ordinate their activities on issues like science education.

The state of science education in India is currently still critical as compared to rest of the world. The significance of science education should not be ignored. A collaborative effort of scientific and educational communities thus has become a need of an hour.

Getting Started in Science Writing

Science writing is one of the most exciting niches in journalism–science writers get to travel, meet intelligent and interesting people and report on new developments from the dramatic and groundbreaking to the quirky and peculiar. Science writers may specialize in one of the traditional natural and physical sciences–biology, geology, physics, and chemistry–or write about anthropology, archeology, medicine and health, engineering, space and planetary science, mathematics or the environment.

Breaking into the science writing field can be daunting due to the scarcity of mid- to low-range markets, but the field is rewarding. You don’t have to have a science background to be a successful science writer. John McPhee, famous for his lyrical geology articles in The New Yorker (some of which are collected in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Annals of the Former World), studied English, not geology. If you do have a science background, that can help you, but overcoming your training to use technical language may be an obstacle.

Education

While almost every writers’ organization seems to offer travel writing courses, science writing courses are rare. Health and medical writing courses are most commonly taught, but colleges and universities occasionally offer more general science or environmental writing courses. Be sure to look carefully at the instructor’s publications before deciding whether to take the course. Seminars on science, environmental and medical writing are sometimes offered at regional or national conferences. These courses and seminars can be a great introduction to the field or help you polish your skills.

Some science writers, particularly those aiming at a staff position, may find a graduate degree is the way to go. Graduate degrees are expensive, however, so consider your options carefully. Some respected science and medical writing graduate programs are offered at MIT, Columbia, University of California–Santa Cruz and Boston University.

Professional Organizations

Several professional organizations provide networking opportunities and resources for science writers. Many offer discounted student membership, and some resources are available to nonmembers.

  • National Association of Science Writers
  • American Medical Writers Association
  • Society of Environmental Journalism

Joining local and regional organizations can also be a great way to network.

Read All About It

In addition to the basic freelance writing books, these books for science writers provide more specific information about everything from finding stories and markets to tips for conveying complex technical information clearly.

Ideas Into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing, by Elise Hancock (2003)

This slim book leans more towards craft than marketing, and provides a solid and enjoyable introduction to how to write about science.

A Field Guide for Science Writers (1st ed.), eds. Deborah Blum and Mary Knudson (out of print)
A Field Guide for Science Writers (2nd ed.), eds. Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig
These two editions have very different content, and both are a mine of information for the aspiring science writer. They cover different markets and types of writing in detail, with contributions from leading science writers.

Finding Markets

Everyone knows about the big general science magazines like Discover and National Geographic, which are prestigious and pay well, but are also hard to break into. Mid-range specialized magazines like Archaeology and Astronomy may be better targets for some, but they don’t have equivalents in all science disciplines.

Fortunately, many magazines accept science stories with the right angle. A forestry magazine might be interested in an article on how a study on bird ecology impacts forest management. Alumni magazines frequently publish articles about science by professors or alumni of the institution. Ecotravel is a booming trend frequently covered by travel magazines.

Don’t discount other ways to make ends meet–writing about science for nonprofit organizations, private labs, and businesses is the bread and butter of many science writers, if less glamorous than being a staff writer for Discover.

Break In!

As with any other writing niche, science writers can break in with good, timely writing and perseverance. So research those markets, start sending queries and don’t give up!

Behind the Scenes at TEP Conferences

Imagine coming across a fascinating book on earthworms by an American entomologist, phoning him up, and bingo, you’ve got a conference on tree health and soil ecology.

That’s what I do for a living these days, as well as working as an interpreter and translator. It is bound to happen at some point when you’ve got an arboriculturist for a father and a botanist for a mother. When I was growing up, trees and plants were almost all anyone talked about. My earliest memory is of bilberry bushes at about eye-height. It may not be a real memory but one suggested by a tatty black-and-white photo of a naked infant me covered in dark juice stains.

As a child born into a happy hippy household based in rural Aberdeenshire and later in the West Country, I was climbing trees practically before I could walk – usually to escape my elder brother. My childhood memories smell of wood and wood smoke, both from fires and from the grownups around me: sculptors, wood carvers, sociologists with a chainsaw (my Dad). My memories of him are mostly of two feet sticking out either from the canopy of a tree or else from under our constantly sick Land Rover. When we could get at the rest of him, we had a great time picking the sawdust out of his ears and belly button as he lay in an exhausted heap after a long day doing what people did back then with dead elm trees if they suddenly found themselves with a family to feed.

Later, I dedicatedly ignored all things botanical and arboricultural and studied fine art and modern languages, working as a conference interpreter and translator in Spain, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, France … However, much as I love my little language business, it was inevitable that I would gravitate back to trees. And here was the perfect means: Treework Environmental Practice conference series.

What started out as seminars for local authorities really took off when the Arboricultural Association went out on a limb to endorse TEP’s principle consultant Neville Fay’s vision of turning the seminars into powerful events capable of influencing national policy. I feel privileged to have been part of such an enterprise and we are forever grateful to the AA for its backing and belief in this innovative process. We’re also very grateful to the Institute for Chartered Foresters and others for their continued support.

Arboricultural practice – what to do in what circumstances – is at the heart of the series. But the series is directly influenced and informed by the science behind arboriculture, as well as the art of observing trees and what is natural versus what is imposed by people. What is natural – ecology and environment – increasingly influences practice, but so do the hard legalistic implications that drive management for public safety within the context of environmental law.

Through organising the conferences I’ve discovered that arboriculture is peopled by passionate, highly committed, deeply concerned professionals. It’s a population that’s widening as arboriculture extends its net into the world of the corporations and utilities, as well as the concerned public. Behind the scenes, the science influencing arboricultural practice blurs into new areas of soil science, ecology, climate, risk, to name but a few fields of research.

In the TEP seminars and conference series we are given a magical capacity to speak with, meet and learn from researchers and practitioners who often go on to become dedicated colleagues. As a consequence of these relationships we have been instrumental in contributing to new organisations such as the National Tree Safety Group and the current urban canopy cover and soils initiatives. We also have the opportunity to forge professional links with organisations such as the Forestry Commission, the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), the Linnean Society and the Town & Country Planning Association.

We have built up highly fruitful relationships with academic departments, such as Middlesex University’s Centre for Decision Analysis and Risk Management (DARM) which has been deeply involved in all three TEP conferences on risk management. After the third of these, led by the Forestry Commission, the risk debate became a national issue following the formation of the National Tree Safety Group, in which the Arboricultural Association played a key role. The risk profession’s contribution to arboriculture and the breadth of stakeholder involvement are helping to protect the UK from descending into a highly litigious culture around trees such as can be seen in the US. In a separate new initiative we are working with Coventry University on a conference on trees and conflict resolution.

Similarly, last year with Barrell Tree Consultancy we held a conference based on the University of Manchester’s research concerning using trees to climate-proof our cities. The vision here was to use the conference as a vehicle to optimise national policy on urban canopy cover. We recognised that arborists have a key contribution to ensuring that large trees are planned for and retained in urban environments. A year on, we are working with the Forestry Commission in stage two of this highly successful initiative. This will be our 15th conference. It will be held this November and is to be chaired by the Forestry Commission’s Director General, Tim Rollinson. It will focus on existing and emerging policies and on how to make urban canopy cover part of the wider climate adaptation movement. Speakers include Professor John Handley OBE, the country’s leading expert on urban regeneration, and, we hope, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London.

This is how we work: each conference starts with an idea – for example, trees and human survival. We explore the important issues behind the idea, look at where we can get sound and solid knowledge about it, track down the field’s leading thinkers and most influential people, and over several months persuade them to come and speak at the conference, as well as write a paper for it. For example, the latest conference idea came from an unusual paper on olive trees in Palestine in the Arboricultural Journal. The concept of trees meaning human survival struck a chord with TEP, which maintains close links with Tree Aid, founded by Neville in 1987 as a response to the famine in Africa. We decided to extend the concept to look at trees and conflict resolution and at projects growing fruit trees instead of opium poppies in Afghanistan. It also gave us the opportunity to work more closely with Dr Mark Johnston of Myerscough College who is writing a book on trees and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The breadth of Mark’s knowledge is reflected in his recent Award of Merit, the highest honour from the International Society of Arboriculture. The conference will be held at the RSA, London, on 3 November.

It is the process of putting together a conference that, either by chance or through the sheer challenge of doing it, places us in the privileged position of having an overview of the influences in and around the tree profession and industry.

One of the biggest influences on what happens to the nation’s treed ecosystems comes from the utility companies: the cable and pipe layers, the road diggers, the rail track owners. For 2010 we are planning a conference with Dealga O’Callaghan at Central Networks (part of energy company E-On), exploring how arboriculture can work with the utilities to establish sound conservation arboriculture principles and practices at a nationwide level.

The conferences give us the chance to explore areas one wouldn’t otherwise have time to investigate. We can pursue lines of enquiry on behalf of others who are busy working within commercial or organisational practices. We know, for example, that there are people out there working on evapotranspiration. Hydrology is fundamental to trees, but we don’t have much time to explore it. So water and trees is a theme for 2010.

I’m constantly surprised by how much I’ve learnt about trees and arboriculture through organising these conferences and I am happy to have come back to trees after some years away. The organising is always a steep learning curve and there’s a lot to do. Hardest of all is accepting that you can’t do everything yourself and you can’t get anyone else to do it for you either. However, apparently there are no problems, only solutions, so to solve this challenge I’m learning ventriloquism and cross-dressing for those moments when a Mini Me just isn’t enough. And the future looks … all I can see is trees.

Three of the Largest Annual Native American Conferences

While the economic development efforts of tribes are quickly growing, Native Americans have long had annual events where industry professionals gather. There are events for Native American physicians, lawyers, financial officers, etc. There is even an annual event and association for Native American administrative assistants. Presented are three of the largest Native American professional gatherings and a couple may even be the oldest.

The National Indian Educators Association (NIEA) has an annual event that is the largest annual conference in Indian Country. This conference brings Native educators from across the nation together for networking, workshops, recognition, and general discussion. The conference attendees range from preschool staffers to tenured university professors. The conference often has an accompanying powwow and activities for students. The site location is decided many years in advance and is not limited to Indian Country. One of the highest attended NIEA conference was held in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The National Congress of the American Indian (NCAI) has a large annual conference where elected tribal officials meet. There are general assemblies, workshops, tradeshow, committee meetings, and discussions that are completed at the annual conference. This is an important conference as tribal officials try to gather consensus on hot topics in Indian Country and Washington, DC. The NCAI has a number of smaller events throughout the year at different locations. It also has a significant midyear conference that is similar to the annual conference.

The Reservation Economic Summit (better known as RES) is an annual business conference that has grown significantly since calling Las Vegas home. Las Vegas has hosted the conference for many years now. This conference is where Native entrepreneurs and tribal economic development personnel gather to network and learn. Corporate diversity departments and government agencies also attend, but typically for the tradeshow. This gives the entrepreneurs an opportunity to make quality contacts for their business.

There are many other professional gatherings, such as American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES) conference, that can be quite large and growing. But these three conferences have a long history, make a significant impact, and are simply the largest Native conferences.

Love Interest in Science Fiction

Mention the subject of “love interest” in connection with the sf genre and you might get various plausibly dismissive reactions from those who do not know it very well. SF, they might say, is too concerned with other things; with sociological extrapolation or derring-do amongst far stars. Its sense of wonder is ill-fitted to the different kind of wonder, the personal nuances of a successful love story. Trying to put both kinds of greatness into a story would surely lead to overloaded plots and confusion of aim.

To which I reply: it all depends on what kind of sf story we are discussing. To begin with it should be admitted that here are stories which are such generally good portrayals of character and situation, that there is bound to be a well-handled love interest simply because the people in the story are human, living human lives. This is the case with Jack Vance’s masterpiece, Araminta Station. Vance in sheer exhuberant creativity gives us the world Cadwal with its political stresses between Conservationists and their “progressive” opponents, and his hero suffers love and loss and love again, in the course of his schooling and career, which is all intimately linked with the fortunes of the society in which he lives. You could call Araminta Station a character-epic set on another world; its status as sf is real, but it also has something of the assurance of a “mainstream” novel of manners.

The love interest doesn’t have to be as nuanced as this in order to be a successful part of a story. In Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, an alien-invasion thriller, the course of true love between hero and heroine is marred for a time when he falsely believes she has allowed herself to participate in a plot to manipulate him into undergoing a horrible test involving contact with a parasitic alien. The episode is a good example of a love story “subplot” being a useful aspect of the main plot when it touches it at a certain point. The characters are not as finely drawn as in the Vance novel but they are every bit as good as they need to be, and they are presented in a sufficiently vivid series of situations, that the reader can round them with his imagination.

This is a good general principle: sf provides the special situations, and the situations provide the opportunities for romantic drama. More so than in mainstream literature, the characters can afford to be stereotyped because the situations confer vividness on them to a special degree. Thus the so-called “stereotypes” become brilliant in their simplicity, like gemstones.

Examples that come to mind include:

The beautiful-but-mean-minded Sanoma Tora and the noble-hearted Tavia in E R Burroughs’ A Fighting Man of Mars; the various women who beguile or infuriate the hero in Ward Moore’s alternate-history novel Bring the Jubilee (in which the Confederacy won); the awkward situations in which the space-pilot hero finds himself in J T McIntosh’s One In Three Hundred, where the Earth is about to be destroyed and space-pilots are given the task of choosing which few people are to be given a chance to escape to Mars…. a situation rather conducive to acquiring a lot of sudden girl friends.

In the Ooranye Project there is the dilemma explored in “The Open Secret”, in which belief in reincarnation is an obstacle to a romance which, in a previous incarnation, led the hero and heroine to produce a child who grew up to be a destructive arch-villain who plagued civilization: the fear is that if they marry again in their current lives, their evil child will also be born again. And in “The Forgetters” the theme of love is likewise basic to the plot – the hero seeking artificial amnesia as an escape from an unhappy marriage, with unforeseen results.

However, sf can do more than all this. The theme of Love itself can be brought explicitly – if you like, philosophically – into the story. Here I must mention the only woman writer to be cited in this article – C L Moore, author of two of the most unforgettable sf tales ever.

“No Woman Born” (1944) is the story of Deirdre, a dancer and singer, who was all but killed in a theatre fire – only her brain survived, and she was given a new body of metal. Its designer knew better than to try to reproduce her old body scientifically; but science could give her another kind of beauty. The metal body is marvellously described. Its fluid, serpentine motions enthrall her audience when Deirdre gives her first comeback performance. Yet we are made to feel that Deirdre is doomed to drift ever further from humanity as the metal of her body influences her soul. The love in this story – the love, not of two individuals for each other, but of an adoring public for a diva – is bound, we feel, to end tragically.

And finally, the ultimate claim for romance, for the power of love: “The Bright Illusion” (1934). Due to a cosmic conflict and the subterfuges and disguises which it makes necessary, a man and an alien are brought together in a love which transcends the barrier of species. Their bodies are horrible to each other, but their souls somehow become enamoured.

It was a very strange sensation to be addressing her thus, from brain to brain. “The sight of you was dreadful to me, and I know how I must have looked to you. But the shock of that sight has taught me something. The shape you wear and the shape you seemed to wear before I saw you in reality are both illusions, both no more than garments which clothe that…. that living, vital entity which is yourself – the real you. And your body does not matter to me now, for I know that it is no more than a mirage.”

In a sense, C L Moore is making opposite points, taking opposite sides, in these two great stories.